Coming from the author’s confusion in relating to her German-speaking Balkan partner, the question is asked:Â can phrases and words that we give great weight to in our native tongue truly be translated across cultural and language barriers.
Could it really mean the same thing for him to say “I love you” in English if he spoke German? He said it did, of course it did. But I sensed that when he cursed in English it was just a sound to him, because when I curse in a foreign language it’s just a sound to me. Why should saying “I love you” be any different? [â€¦]
I don’t speak German but I’ve said “ich liebe dich” plenty of times and it never does feel like a contract the way saying “I love you” feels like a contract. [â€¦]
I once tried saying “volim te” â€” “I love you” in Serbo-Croatian â€” and he didn’t respond. I asked if I’d said it right and he said I had. Then he repeated it quietly.
That’s the one, I thought: volim te. That’s the “I love you” that works for me, the one that is honest.
It’s a touching article, and presents a thought that is now at the forefront of my mind given my impending move to a non-native English-speaking country.
Euphemisms, politeness, suggestiveness, sarcasm, irony and passive-aggressive gestures â€” all risk being lost in translation.
In my writing class, I teach my students about subtext. I tell them people alter their conversations depending on whom they wish to address. I tell them people rarely say what they mean, that we are constantly revising our words, that the movement from thought to word is often transformative and strange.
Subtext does not often transfer between languages.